Without a doubt, red, is THE color of the Holiday season. It’s visible everywhere, from shiny ornaments, bright and cheery wreaths, gift wrap, cheesy sweaters, to the oh-so yearned for seasonal cups at Starbucks. It’s all around us and provides a constant reminder that we’re in the midst of a good, and, pardon the cliché, jolly time of year. But, somewhere among all that red is a plant that transcends the season and poignantly gifts us all with not only its beauty, but with centuries of history to boot.
The Poinsettia is known as Noche Buena (good night) in Latin American countries, or if you’re a botanical nerd, in a good way of course, is scientifically named Euphorbia pulcherrima.
The “symbol” of Christmas has deep origins in Mexico. It predates the Hispanic arrival in the Americas and was highly valued by the Aztecs who used it primarily as a dye for their leather goods and textiles. Noche Buena, or Cuetlaxóchitl, as the Aztecs knew it in their náhuatl language, represented the blood shed during sacrificial offerings made to the sun in hopes of renewed strength and vigor.
Fast forward several centuries later to the 1700’s and Franciscan priests were found to be using the plant during the Fiestas del Santo Pesebre in Taxco, Mexico in which an elaborate Nativity scene was played out.
It wasn’t until 1825, that the United States was introduced to this fiery red plant. During this time, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, grew fondly of its charm and decorative element after seeing it in Taxco that he chose to take some to his home state of South Carolina. The proliferation and mass production took off from that point and hence was known as Poinsettia. Genetic modifications affecting size, shape and color led to a broad cultivation that crossed numerous international borders and to this day, continues. This plant is now found from the smallest of towns in the U.S. to the large and dizzying markets of Europe and beyond. Both the United States and Mexico have specific days of the year to celebrate this seasonal plant. The U.S. recognizes December 12th as “National Day of the Poinsettia”, while Mexico reserves December 8th as the day to embrace Noche Buena’s cultural and historical significance.
In Mexico, what started as a Pre-Hispanic tradition continues. Noche Buena is cultivated and thrives in tropical climes in states like Nayarit, Colima, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. It’s grown primarily as a touch to the seasonal spirit. Though the state of Morelos is known as the chief producer of this plant, places like Zitacuaro, Michoacán can claim a vast production as well.
And yes, though Christmas does lend a kaleidoscopic canvas of color, we are guaranteed to be enriched by the ubiquitous splashes of red, especially from the many displays of a plant so vibrant in color, yet so subtle in perpetuating centuries of history.